This is a featured article from Pike & Hurricane’s partner magazine The Perspective of Lund University.
What is the state of the world today? Where have we been, where are we, and where are we going? Weapons of mass destruction, famine, climate crisis, asteroids hitting the earth, future pandemics, arms races, overcrowded refugee camps, super-volcanoes, fascism and alternative facts are only a few of the numerous problems that humanity faces. It can get overwhelming when trying to process all of this. However, the news tends to prioritize war over reality—when, in fact, humans are doing pretty well.
As a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at Lund University, I see patterns of polarization, violence, and the breakdown of states everywhere I look. Democracy is in global decline, rape is used as a weapon of war, nuclear arms deals are failing and social media is polarizing us into frightening bubbles of self-righteous, aggravating rhetoric. The problems are huge and complex, and affect people and families all over the world. Being hopeful is difficult, but let me help.
“Where cooperation has created death and destruction it is also the solution.”
When we see war and cruelty, there are deep patterns of cooperation that we tend to overlook. We read about war, murders, environmental degradation, and then think that human nature is greedy, selfish and cruel. However, when we say that the winners write the history books, we forget what made the writer a winner: human cooperation. You have a war? That is two or more sides, each one cooperating to win over the other. You have a nuclear bomb? It was created by scientists that cooperated through sharing knowledge. You have THE PERSPECTIVE in your hand? I am happy to say that we cooperated to get this delivered to you. Human cooperation is everywhere and we take it for granted. War and nuclear bombs are horrific things, but where cooperation has created death and destruction it is also the solution.
Cooperation is what makes humans unique. In the widely read novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the stranded boys slowly descend into chaos and are described to hold a beast-like quality in their human core. Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, found the real-life example of Lord of the Flies. It turns out six boys stranded on an island in Tonga constructively cooperated to survive for more than a year. One even broke a leg, and the others compensated to let their friend heal. Lord of the Flies is a good novel, but that’s all it is. In reality, we usually do better. We are the only species on the planet that can cooperate in large numbers with other unknown humans. This is an incredible advantage we have over other animals. Animals like wolves or monkeys can only cooperate in small numbers and not outside their circle or kin. Put ten million chimpanzees in Paris and you get chaos, but in the same space ten million humans manage to cooperate and co-exist. Human reality tends to lean toward cooperation and we see it in international politics, too.
Last year the United Nations celebrated 75 years of existence. It can be considered the pinnacle of human cooperation. It has served an instrumental role in creating peaceful international relations. States across the globe come together to discuss issues, to reach agreements and to ensure international peace. This inter-state organization has been an incredible success. Since its creation, there have been no superpower-wars. Let me say that again: there have been zero wars between superpowers while the United Nations has existed. This point might sound trivial, but oh, so important to make!
The existence of the United Nations is taken for granted today. According to Our World in Data, out of the world’s population in 2019, less than 8% is 65 years or older. This means that almost nobody alive today was of an age to witness and understand the creation of the United Nations. The pinnacle of human cooperation, to us, has always been there. Our standards of international relations and peace are very different than those who lived through the first and second World Wars. To put it into perspective, imagine instead what might have happened if there had been no United Nations at all during the Cold War. The UN has given the world the Laws of War and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and much more. Without it, wars today would be much worse than what they currently are.
This positive development is a slow and long-term one, but it is an important one. There is much data to support this worldview. Since 1945, global life expectancy has gone up, child mortality has gone down, hunger has decreased, access to electricity has gone up, democracies have increased, war deaths are decreasing, homicides are decreasing—I could go on and on. This has only been 75 years. If we instead look back 300 years, it is fair to say that humanity has progressed just fine. If you want to know more, look at all this data by yourself through Our World in Data.
Now, compare these hard facts to the news. Have you ever heard reporters say “Today 137,000 people escaped extreme poverty” every day for the last 25 years? The answer is no, despite this being a truth of global human development. Our human reality is a reality of positives and negatives merged into one world. You almost give up on humanity when you read the news, but that is because these slow, positive developments are not covered in popular media.
“Humans are not problem-oriented; we are solution-oriented.”
In exclusive correspondence with THE PERSPECTIVE, Dr. Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, writes that “peace consists of nothing happening, which by definition is not news.” News media tend to follow the motto of “when it bleeds, it leads,” but reality is not a big pile of blood. To understand the world, you cannot only look at the news. When you look at countries at war, look at the countries at peace at the same time to get the whole picture. To be fair, the fact that the news media mainly covers problems and human suffering is a very constructive and cooperative act in and of itself as well. While being aware of the positive progress humans are making, you are also getting information about problems humans have to solve to improve human life even further.
Humans are not problem-oriented; we are solution-oriented. Dr. Pinker emphasized that by looking at data and seeing trends in the long-term, we can “muster the energy to reduce [war] further.” We learn from looking at what we did wrong in the past. We also learn by looking at what we are doing right, and it seems we have more to learn about what we’re doing right. It is difficult to process all the problems we face today, but it is because we are more aware and know more about all of our problems today. We are facing immense inequality, traumatizing wars and environmental crises. Alone, it can feel impossible to deal with it, understand it, and try to change it. Luckily, we are by nature experts at cooperating and in the last centuries we have (statistically) passed the challenge of progress with flying colors.
Featured image: Japanese Women Visit Lake Success, by United Nations Photo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0